Escaping the Banal

I want to return to “The Book of Laughter and Forgetting” today and cover one of the major themes of that book. Kundera wrote the novel in the late 1970s, which was a decade of massive cultural changes. Most of what we know as the sexual revolution began in the 1960s, but really washed ashore culturally in the 70s. And by the late 70s, Kundera for one was getting exhausted of its effects.

One of the most memorable moments in the book concerns a possible seduction that a man experiences on a train, where the character meets an attractive woman, they seem to have chemistry and there is opportunity for an encounter, but the man eventually sees the situation as merely a repeat of numerous similar encounters in his life and it loses all eroticism for him. Throughout the book, there are similar situations where sexual encounters are mismatched or somehow less exciting than they should be. There are questions raised about disturbing erotic archetypes for men and a particularly bizarre scene where children sexual torture an adult woman.

All of this happens with a strange sense of comic detachment from Kundera. He doesn’t find any of it shocking or traumatic. If anything, he finds it all too commonplace. The shock of sex in this age had worn down, leaving his characters numb, to the point that the book’s final scene takes place on a nude beach, where none of the characters find anything erotic about the situation and they devolve into dull political oratory.

What I find interesting about reading the book in this era is that what might have been considered banal in the 1970s — encountering someone on a train — is downright romantic by contemporary standards. If chance meetings seemed cliche then, just imagine spending your time waiting for a notification alert on your iPhone about someone you forgot to have clicked on days or weeks ago who now expresses interest in you. Everyone has become a commodity. Banal encounters have been made profitable.

It’s almost enough to make one long for the great mythic quests that once defined romantic seduction. Miguel Cervantes perfectly satirized the concept of courtly love in “Don Quixote” while also infusing it with an absurd charm that resonates even today. Dulcinea doesn’t even exist, she is a pure creation of Quixote, but also the object of this chivalrous adventures. It doesn’t matter that there isn’t a Dulcinea, what matters is that Quixote is driven by his creation to perform ever more absurd, but character defining acts of will.

This gave me the idea for a new type of dating app called “Mythos.” In my fictional app, you cannot just swipe right to attain a match, you must perform a feat, as prescribed by the man or woman, that will make you worthy of the first meeting. For example, perhaps a woman will demand that a man write a song before earning a conversation. There is no guarantee that performing the act will lead to a match — in fact, it could just lead to another feat or a decision that it’s all not worth it. But accomplishing the feats within the app could become rewards in themselves, and perhaps there might grow a culture of people who use the app purely to collect quest badges rather than to meet someone. If this were to happen, the age of the knight errant would be reborn, which would make Don Quixote newly relevant. And that would be reward enough for me.

None of this would do anything to ensure that banal relationships filled with banal sex wouldn’t take over, everything is cyclical and eventually runs its useful course. But at least a return to a form of mythic courtship would give people a chance to become a little more interesting and maybe a little closer to the person they aspire to be in the course of finding a mate … and that might just make the whole process a little more tolerable for everyone. Or it at least will make for far more interesting “how I met your mother” stories in old age.